Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.

Mark's Daily Apple

5 Jun

How to Eat More Chocolate and Drink More Wine Every Day

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How can you turn this down?

Health, in my view, is really about enjoyment and quality of life. It’s not all celery sticks and cardio – far from it. Dark chocolate and red wine shouldn’t be consumed with the reckless abandon I sincerely hope you reserve for vegetables, but they are reasonably healthy indulgences. Here’s how to indulge a little more (am I looking out for you or what?).

10. Drunk Marinara

My editor, Sara, shares this tip: wash and chop up 2 pounds of fresh tomatoes. (Don’t bother with that canned stuff if you want the healthiest possible sauce. This is easy.) Add in half your normal amount of water or broth (you’ll see why in a second). Next add several fresh garlic cloves and any other spices or herbs you fancy in your tomato sauce. The antioxidant boost: after the tomatoes have simmered and stewed for a while, pour in 1 cup of red wine. Between the cooked tomatoes, garlic and wine, you’ll have a sauce so good, you’ll want to drink it and forget about whatever you were going to pour it on (better not be pasta).

9. Chocolate, Meet Meat

Buy the darkest, most bitter, pure chocolate you can find. Even mass chocolate manufacturers like Hershey’s are pushing darker and darker chocolates. You can find upwards of 70% these days without breaking a sweat. Melt a bar in a saucepan with a big dash of cayenne pepper, a generous pinch of oregano or marjoram, a touch of olive oil, and a decent sprinkle of sea salt. You now have a very interesting and incredible reduction to drizzle over your pork chops. Just trust me.

8. Drink Wine at Lunch

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A necessary word of caution: I am not recommending a future career as a lush here. But you might enjoy splitting up that nightly glass of red into two small glasses (emphasis on small) and having a splash of wine at lunch. Many cultures around the world enjoy a little swill at noon. Obviously, this won’t work for everyone depending on schedules and workplace expectations. And, if alcohol is something that you tend to indulge too much in, then skip this tip (matter of fact, skip this post).

7. Goodbye Coffee, Hello Chocolate

Chocolate for breakfast? Sure. This tip is for the morning vice crowd. If you want whiter teeth and you never seem to eat anything for breakfast, tackle both issues by eating a piece of dark chocolate instead of coffee. You’ll get some fat and caffeine to nourish your brain, quell your starving stomach and stimulate your nerves. I think some sliced tomatoes or scrambled eggs are both obviously better ideas for your mornings, but if you’re a coffee junkie and you have trouble ingesting a morning dose of calories, hey, I say work with the problem instead of fighting it. Dark chocolate still has some sugar, so if you’re trying to lose weight or if you need to watch your blood sugar, stick to the scrambled eggs.

6. Drink Wine at Breakfast

Just kidding! Don’t do that.

5. Dump Carbs, Promptly Reward Self

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Do you need to cut out refined carbohydrates like pasta, candy, pastries and soda? Everyone does. Eliminating refined carbohydrate intake is a critical first step in losing weight, ridding yourself of mood swings, and simply improving your overall health. But be sure you create a system to reward yourself a little for each step you take to better health. For example, you might eliminate your three biggest vices (let’s say they’re pasta, potatoes, and soda). For each day you avoid these three vices, you get three small squares of dark chocolate. Eat them at night for a serotonin boost that will improve your sleep and make you feel happy. Three squares typically contain around 10 grams of sugar. While not ideal, that’s a lot better than several hundred grams from a serving of refined carbs at each meal.

4. Quit Wining and Eat Your Greens

Skip the sugary, trans-fat-clogged, chemical-laden store salad dressings and whip up an antioxidant- and immune-boosting dressing at home. Mix equal parts red wine with a tasty vinegar. Next, blend equal parts of this mixture and olive oil. This is an easy, healthy dressing that will liven up your greens (which I hope you’re eating every day).

Note: wine doesn’t last more than a few days at most, so don’t make big batches of the stuff. Just enough for a few meals.

3. Forget Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

This is not really something to eat daily, but if you’re a candy lover and you’re in need of a healthier substitute, have a square of dark chocolate with some fresh-roasted, organic, sugar-free almond butter. After a few weeks of this, if you try out the ole Cups, you’ll be put off by the chemical taste. Guaranteed candy cure. (You MDA frequent fliers know I’m really not a substitute kind of guy – to be healthy, you gotta eat healthy, end of story. I happen to think salads and grilled lean meats taste amazing and I think living on indulgent junk food is anything but living. However, some treats really are pretty decent for you – almond butter is full of Omega-3’s and fiber, and a little dark chocolate is fine.)

2. Yo, Sodaholics!

Think about switching your soda to wine. Again, huge disclaimer: this is not a recommendation to become Peter O’Toole. This is strictly for soda addicts. The purpose is to get you to realize what you’re actually doing to your body. For most folks – I’m not talking about alcoholics – soda is far worse for the body than wine (and unlike wine, has zero marginally redeeming health benefits). Downing multiple sodas may be socially acceptable, but it’s addictive and enormously destructive to health. The problem is that it intoxicates your body in an entirely different – and perhaps more insidious – way than alcohol. Soda does terrible damage, but you don’t “feel” the damage immediately. The closest thing is a sugar crash, in which case, most people just have another soda to stave it off. The problem with soda is that the internal destruction isn’t really noticeable until you’re overweight, diabetic, depressed and wondering why you have a mood crash every day at 3 p.m. If you drink a glass of wine, however, you feel it. You don’t need a second (I hope). So just imagine what all those sodas were actually doing to your body.

Gee, that’s just super, Mark, but I drink soda at work. No problem: to get off the lunchtime soda habit, have a glass of water and a piece of fruit. You’re just dehydrated.

1. What’s Your Best Chocolate or Wine Tip?

jypsygen, polifemus (out of order), suavehouse113 Flickr Photos (CC)

Helpful reads and references:

White chocolate is not chocolate!

Health benefits of chocolate

Wine beats juice for antioxidant absorption

Problems with soda

Is this guy nuts? My most popular articles

More Tuesday 10 articles

The idea for this headline came from Lyndon. Thanks!

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Sponsor note:
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4 Jun

More Juice; Coke Hearts Stevia

A brief update: we’re juicing this apple (so to speak). The blog is going to be down later this afternoon for a spell so we can install some new plug-ins that will improve the blog tremendously and add to your experience. No worries, we’ll be back up later in the day.

Be sure to stop in tomorrow for the always-popular Tuesday 10 and a discussion of everyone’s favorite topic: chocolate.

In the meantime, I recommend the following links for your daily health dose:

The biodegradable heart stent.

What will they come up with next? You all know I’m going to be grumbling about prevention on this one, but I do agree that this is a promising turn for problematic stents.

Stevia is fine – now that Coke wants to use it.

I’ve used stevia for years, which is saying something, as it can be tougher to get hold of than a real human when calling any customer service number. You can stop using it for “skin care” – with big soda lobbies on your side, that is. This doesn’t make soda healthy for you, though.

More problems with food from China.

Yet another unfortunate consequence of the global food web (this time, toothpaste).

toothpaste

All the toothpaste you need – this is Toasty Ken’s Flickr photo.

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Last week’s Worker Bees’ Daily Bites

My Most Popular Articles

4 Jun

How to Eat More Fat

Sara here. Alert the press, for I am going to share with you the best ways to eat a lot more fat. That’s right (whew…you can stop stressing now).

Your weekly health challenge: eat more fat.

I want you to get greasy with it.

But this isn’t a license to hit up the candy aisle or to stop in at McDonald’s. I want you to eat more healthy fats this week. Here are some tips and types. Try them out and then give all your fellow apples a hand by talking about your favorite fats in the forum (we narrowly missed a tongue-twister there, didn’t we?).

Fats to eat:

Cream, eggs, butter

That’s right – I’m recommending saturated fat. Irresponsible of me, I know. Actually, provided you’re eating organic dairy and eggs, and you’re not getting crazy with the portions, saturated fat is not the monster it’s made out to be. I personally am more concerned about triglycerides and inflammation than I am about cholesterol, and refined fat and sugar have the most impact on these two health wreaking balls. I’m not saying cholesterol doesn’t matter; it does. It just doesn’t matter as much as you think. You can enjoy a little saturated fat.

Nuts, avocados, fish

Omega 3’s, people!

Coconut oil, walnut oil, avocado oil, olive oil

Put down the corn, soybean and canola oil. These may be unsaturated, but that doesn’t make them healthy (they are still refined, and contain some undesirable fatty acid chains). Liven up your meals, give your tastebuds something to live for, and try out new, omega-3-rich oils. Go and drench thyself. Stat.

Fats you’re too good for:

– fried anything, breaded anything, processed anything, packaged anything, not-natural anything. Keep these junk fats away from your precious body! I mean it!

Why eat fat:

Well, for starters, fat doesn’t make you fat. Fat also helps with stress management, cognition, mood, sleep, energy, weight management, healthy tissues, skin and hair – even digestion and nutrient absorption.

Why I know what I’m talking about:

I’m not a scientist and I’m not a doctor, so while I hope you consider my thoughts to be helpful, just remember that if you tell your doctor “But my homegirl Sara told me…” you might not have her immediately convinced of the glories of your newfound decadent fat consumption. I have spent the last several years reading endless studies and articles, so in my own defense I am pretty darn educated on the subject. Please don’t let all those nights your editor spent reading go to waste. icon wink But what probably matters most and is ultimately most insightful is my own health story. For several years there, I was quite the little frumpalump, and I wasn’t very healthy, either. Thanks to what I’ve learned from Mark, I dropped 20 pounds of literally depressing and unattractive grad-school pudge (the impossible “last 20″ stubborn clinger kind), and got rid of my horrendous migraines and “adventures” with mood imbalances. That was just the beginning, too. Thanks to BFFing dietary fat, I now enjoy all kinds of other incredible health benefits which I’ll be sure to regale you with in future posts (but only because I really, really think you will benefit).

What you can do right now:

– It’s lunch time for a lot of us right now. Eat some fat.

Share your personal faves and tips in the forum so we can all eat more fat.

– Recite: “Fat is fun.” Rinse, repeat.

– Check out my article (and give it a Digg if you like it!)

Helpful reading:
Mark’s views on fat

Mark’s views on carbs

Mark’s carb pyramid

Popular posts here at MDA

Fat facts

More fat facts

I’m not making this up, really: even more fat facts

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Are you up for the challenge?

4 Jun

Am I Missing Something?

As many of you know I travel a good deal for business. I’ve been doing a fair amount of consulting and speaking lately, and of course I travel for my own company. I was recently in Texas for a television taping. Now, something I’m proud of is that I’ve become an ace traveler. I used to make frequent short trips to Asia for business, and I’ve got the jet-lag thing nailed down pretty well (Texas is a walk in the park compared to those days).

But nothing ever prepares me for the humorous cultural differences even in our blessed 50. To wit: I arrived in Dallas fresh off a really early morning flight, so I decided to grab some breakfast. After my coffee, eggs, and tomatoes (instead of bacon and hash), I was all set to pay my check when the waitress came over, looking concerned – in fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d say disapproving was a more apt description. She gave me a good looking over, and in all the chiding severity of a stern grandmother, said, “But, honey, you haven’t even had your dessert yet!” She motioned to the glass case of various cakes, cobblers and other sweets. I suddenly noticed that a few guys at the counter were digging into assorted pie slices to top off their greasy spoon breakfasts. Of course, I said no, but not without some negotiating. I left feeling like a puppy with his tail between his legs – the nerve of me, not having dessert with my breakfast! I love travel, and I always have a good time in Texas, but dessert – for breakfast? Come on!

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2 Jun

Art and Mark on Doping, Endurance and Health

A few months back I exchanged a series of interesting letters with Art De Vany on fitness, doping, cardiovascular health and other issues related to health and to endurance athletes in particular. Here’s the complete set:

I have followed with great interest your discussion and analysis of purported steroid use and home-run distributions. In a recent post, you asked about the incidence of false positives in sports drug-testing and you wondered how that might factor into the equation. I’ve given great deal of thought to that and related issues over the past 15 years and now feel compelled to add my two cents to your discussion – but on a much grander scale. At the risk of sounding a bit brazen, I would suggest to you and your audience that sport would be better off allowing athletes to make their own personal decisions regarding the use of so-called “banned substances” and leaving the federations and the IOC out of it entirely. (Even the term “banned substance” has a negative connotation, since most of these substances are actually drugs that were developed to enhance health in the general population). Bottom line: the whole notion of drug-testing in sports is far more complex than even the media make it out to be.

First, I should tell you that I was the Anti-doping Commissioner of the International Triathlon Union (ITU) – a relatively new sport within the Olympic Family – for nearly 13 years. I had to act as “prosecutor” on many doping cases (doping = drugs in sport). Prior to that, I helped write the first set of “anti-doping” rules for triathlon in 1988. Before that, I was an elite marathoner (2:18) and triathlete (4th Place Ironman Hawaii) in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so I have accumulated a fair amount of “inside information” regarding drugs in sport at the Olympic level. I also own a supplement company and have done extensive research on performance enhancement in pursuit of natural, legal alternatives.

There are three main points I want to make here: first, that it is impossible to fairly police and adjudicate drugs in sport; second, that the notion of a “level playing field” is a farce and, finally, that the performance requirements set by the federations at the elite level of sport almost demand access to certain “banned substances” in order to assure the health and vitality of the athlete throughout his or her career and – more importantly – into his or her life after competition.

Impossible to fairly police and adjudicate. Most people think that a positive test is conclusive proof of guilt, but the reality is that almost all these tests are nothing more than GC/MS (http://www.scientific.org/tutorials/articles/gcms.html for a good description) quantitative analyses that look for parts per billion of certain metabolites in the urine. They are not black and white indicators of guilt. They are wavy lines on a graph subject to interpretation by scientists with varying degrees of expertise. In many cases a “threshold level” is established below which you are “clean” but above which you are “guilty.” Test results will vary significantly from one “accredited” lab to another. You can test positive in one lab and, conceivably, have another lab exonerate you using a portion of the very same sample. I have presided over cases where an athlete tested positive for metabolites of nandrolone (a once-popular steroid) at levels of 4 or 5 parts per billion when the cut-off was 2.5 or 3. Even at such disputably low levels, athletes are presumed guilty. Some labs have proven that these metabolites can occur in the body from having consumed certain types of meat or from other foods or are even endogenously produced. In my opinion, the threshold levels have always been too low, so a handful of innocent athletes get severely penalized, while others who are dirty but are not tested get cleared to compete and keep whatever money or medal they win.

In the old days if you ate a poppyseed muffin before a race, your urine could easily show above-threshold levels of metabolites of opium and you could be disqualified. It actually happened to a triathlete who was later cleared. There are other similar “false positives” we had to be on the lookout for.

A T/E (testosterone to epitestosterone) higher than 6:1 was considered evidence of a doping violation, yet we had cases of women who scored a T/E of 20, not because testosterone was present in high amounts, but because the epitestosterone was extremely low as a result of birth control pills. In other cases, elite athletes’ normal testosterone levels were high enough to exceed the limit, but they were allowed to compete when they showed proof of genetic abnormality. The limit is now 4:1 and produces thousands of “false positives” each year!

In other cases, athletes who have been diagnosed with asthma (now nearing 25% of the elite athlete population – don’t get me started) and who have properly notified the IOC and have a “therapeutic use exemption” on file can use salbutamol, salmeterol and similar “anabolic-property” drugs which are otherwise banned. But god forbid you are an athlete from a developing nation with asthma whose team physician failed to properly file your papers. Same condition, but now you can be severely penalized for the ignorance of your coaches or doctors.

There are known cases of sabotage where ex-wives have tainted supplements (or even toothpaste) to cause a positive test, and where athletes in races have consumed tainted drinks offered by unscrupulous coaches or fans of rival competitors.

Even when you do get a fairly reliable test result from the lab, a good lawyer can throw doubt on the integrity of the collection process, the chain of custody or a number of other factors, enough to get a truly guilty athlete off on a technicality. All these factors combined lead me to the conclusion that it is impossible to fairly police or adjudicate doping in sport.

The notion of a level playing field is a farce. The IOC and many professional leagues suggest that banning doping in sports will create a “level playing field”, meaning that all athletes should have access – or not – to the same advantages and disadvantages. Art’s exceptional analysis of home-run distribution notwithstanding, there are clearly advantages to be had from the use of certain substances specifically within certain sports. Take the use of EPO in cycling and running. EPO (Erythropoetin) is a natural hormone produced by the body. EPO stimulates the production of red blood cells, whose level in the blood is measured by hematocrit. Red blood cells contain the hemoglobin that carries oxygen to muscles where fuel can be burned. The more oxygen you deliver to the muscles, the more energy output you derive from those muscles. So having more red blood cells is a good thing and is a primary goal of many endurance athletes. Hard training raises EPO and hematocrit, but drug companies also make artificial EPO which does the same thing without training (intended medical use is for recovery from chemotherapy which destroys RBCs). Artificial EPO is banned. Now here’s the irony: research confirms that if you train at sea level and sleep at 14,000 feet, your body makes red blood cells at an impressive rate and amount. Several companies have developed expensive “altitude chambers” for home use where you can now train at sea level and then retire to your room for the night, simulating an altitude of 14,000 feet or higher. The end result is that you have, within the letter of the law, manipulated your own EPO to artificially raise hematocrit, yet using artificial EPO to do the same thing is punishable by a 2-year suspension. Talk to an endurance athlete from a developing nation with $2 to his name about THAT level playing field.

In the early days of EPO testing, the cycling federation would measure the hematocrit of every cyclist before a race. If your hematocrit was above 52%, you were not allowed to race and were presumed to have doped. However, there were instances of cyclists from high-mountain regions in South America who had normally high hematocrits (from training AND living at 14,000 feet or higher). Some were not allowed to race because they had achieved a high hematocrit naturally. Meanwhile, others who used artifical EPO to get from, say, 44% to 51% raced without penalty. Talk to those South Americans about a level playing field.

There are many other idiosyncrasies. Within the IOC, 2 cups of coffee is OK, but 8 cups is illegal. Marijuana will get you suspended by some federations, but not by others. Creatine, one of the best natural performance enhancing substances is legal in track and field, while beta-blockers, which have no effect on performance, were not. My point is that the concept of a level playing field is a nice idea, but one that has not been realized in Olympic sport.

The performance requirements set by the federations at the elite level of sport almost demand access to certain “banned substances” in order to assure the health and vitality of the athlete throughout his or her career and – more importantly – into his or her life after competition. As I write this, Mike Quarry has just died at 55 from “pugilistic dementia”, the same fate that took his brother Jerry at age 52. World class athletes tend to die significantly younger than you would predict from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and early-onset dementia. They also typically suffer premature joint deterioration from the years of pounding, and most endurance athletes look like hell from the years of oxidative damage that has overwhelmed their feeble antioxidant systems. Most people don’t realize it, but training at the elite level is actually the antithesis of a healthy lifestyle. The definition of peak fitness means that you are constantly at or near a state of physical breakdown. As a peak performer on a world stage, you have done more work than anyone else, but you have paid a price. It is again ironic that the professional leagues and the IOC, the ones who dangle that carrot of millions of dollars in salary or gold-medalist endorsements are the same ones who actually create this overtrained, injured and beat-up army of young people. They don’t care. These organizations then deny the athletes the very same drugs and even some natural “health-enhancing” substances that the rest of society can easily receive whenever they feel the least bit uncomfortable.

I had to disqualify and suspend a kid from competition for 90 days because he had a head cold the night before his national championships. His dad had gone to the drugstore and gotten him some Sudafed so he could breathe while he slept. His urine test was positive when he won the race the next day. He forfeited his winnings and he had to sit out the World Championships as a result. I felt terrible, but the rules required that we do it.

I had to suspend a talented and promising young Mexican triathlete because his vitamins contained a tiny amount of a little-known stimulant legal over-the-counter in Mexico. His doctor had prescribed vitamins for him because he had been chronically overtraining and yet had little or no access to decent training foods.

These days many athletes avoid taking high-potency multi-vitamins out of fear that contaminants in their supplements could destroy their careers. Yet these same athletes have nutrient requirements that exceed the RDAs by a factor of 10 or 20 in some cases. It has been said many times that world class athletes will do anything to win – even if it means risking their lives. If that’s the case, then don’t let them train so hard that they destroy their health and then deny them the very tools they need to recover!

I could go one, but you get my drift. I believe that with proper supervision, athletes could be healthier and have longer careers (not to mention longer and more productive post-competition lives) using many of these “banned substances.” And perhaps the biggest assumption I will make here is that the public just doesn’t care. Professional sport has become theater. All the public wants is a good show and an occasional world record.

Part 2:
In a prior post, I introduced a notion that training for sports competition at the elite level was the antithesis of a healthy activity. Since many people seem to think that athletes are almost by definition healthy, I thought I might develop that idea a bit further in this post and open it up for discussion.

Please don’t misconstrue what I say here as advocating any sort abstinence from sports or from training. On the contrary, I believe sports of all types can play a huge role in personal development, self-awareness and self-image, and may even help mold long-lost community life-skills like sharing, mutual cooperation and loss acceptance. I will make a case that sports and other non-group recreational exercise activities can contribute greatly to health, longevity and the quality of life. But, as with all things in life, moderation seems to be the key.

I first became aware of the distinction between “fitness” and “health” when I was competing as a marathoner in the 1970s and later as a triathlete for a while in the 80s. From 1975 until 1980 I averaged between 75 and 110 running miles a week in my training. Much of that mileage was done at over 75% of my VO2 Max and a substantial portion at over 90%. During that period, I became extremely “race fit”, as defined solely by the ability to enter a race and run fast. On the other hand, in retrospect, I consider myself to have been very unfit in a true Darwinian (or EF) sense during that time. I would routinely get upper respiratory tract infections, irritable bowel conditions (probably cortisol and ischemia-related), chronic tendonitis in my joints, and I eventually developed osteoarthritis. I spent an average of 5-6 weeks a year sick or injured (running was a year-around sport in those days) yet I was considered extremely fit! My injuries got so bad in 1980 that I could no longer train at the level required to be a top marathoner, so I switched to triathlons for a few years, and raced quite well in that nascent sport. Unfortunately, the same illnesses and injuries continued to plague me and the set-backs piled up.

When I retired beat-up at the ripe old age of 29 in 1982, I decided to write a book on triathlon training and to focus on the idea of “quality” over “quantity” in terms of mileage and training time. I wasn’t the first to really delve into this, and much discussion about maximizing training has gone on since. But I came up with a theory that the human athlete is much like a helicopter. The old saying about helicopters (and it may have since changed) was that according to the laws of physics, they are not supposed to be able to fly. The fact that they can fly is great, but the wear and tear of overcoming this “natural order of things” requires that they spend an inordinate amount of time being maintained – up to an hour and a half of maintenance for each hour flown. Well, the same holds true for humans. We were not designed to run (or cycle, swim or skate) for hours each day at 90% VO2 Max, or to spend hours each day in the gym lifting heavy weights. The fact that we can and that we are able to derive some short-term performance gain or adaptation to these exercises is great – if your desire is to measure your performance against another human. But we must recognize that in so doing – in going beyond the “natural order of things human” – we need to spend an inordinate amount of time on maintenance, or we will break down just like a poorly maintained helicopter. Our bearings will wear out, our parts will oxidize and corrode and our engine will fail. Literally. Athletic performance may be impressive, but it comes at a huge cost.

Here are some real cases to review – and many of these are people I know personally: Greg Welch, one of the most versatile all-around triathletes ever (he won Ironman Hawaii, the ITU World Championships and the world Duathlon Championship) was forced to retire at age 37 due to severe heart problems. He has had over 10 open heart surgeries and wears a pace-maker. Mark Montgomery, who was a top pro triathlete for many years, had his pace-maker installed at age 46 as a result of V-tach issues. Johnny G, the developer of the popular “Spin” classes and a RAAM racer, has had severe cardiomyopathy and recently had a pacer-maker installed. Maddy Tormoen, 3-time world Duathlete-of-the-Year and 35-year old Emma Carney, twice ITU World Triathlon champion each now have defibrillators implanted in their chests to correct life-threatening arrhythmias. Chris Legh and Julianne White, both Ironman winners, have each had entire sections of their colon removed immediately after a race due to “ischemic conditions” where the blood supply to the GI tract was rerouted for so long (as the body diverted the blood to its periphery to cool itself) that whole sections of the colon literally died from lack of oxygen and nutrients. Alberto Salazar, arguably the greatest marathoner the USA has produced suffered a heart attack at age 48. John Walker, one of the greatest milers of all-time was diagnosed with Parkinsons at age 46. Marty Liquori, another world-best miler was diagnosed with leukemia at age 43. Bruce Balch, Steve Scott and Lance Armstrong (all endurance athletes) all got testicular cancer after a few years of competing. Most of the top runners from the 80’s don’t run anymore; many can barely walk due to arthritic conditions. And we think endurance training is healthy?

One of the most alarming trends in sports these days is the increase in EIA or Exercise Induced Asthma. In some countries, over 25 % of elite endurance athletes eventually develop EIA as a direct result of their superhuman training schedules. In many cases, the diagnosis requires treatment with otherwise “banned substances” such as salbutamol, salmeterol and corticosteroids under a special IOC “therapeutic use exemption.” Another phenomenon that has concerned me for a while is the prevalence of amenorrhea in younger female athletes who train at elite levels, particularly runners and gymnasts. This condition, along with cortisol output, can result in loss of bone density during competitive years and dramatically increase risk for osteoporosis later in life. The list goes on.

Clearly, training and competing at the elite level has huge costs. We weren’t designed to train that hard for that long. We were built to migrate – at low level aerobic pace – across the plains foraging for food, scavenging leftover meat some carnivore had already killed and finished, maybe having to sprint for a few seconds to the safety of a tree. Even later when we became hunter-gatherers, we probably relied more on methodical tracking skills than on trying to outrun our prey. Nothing in my research indicates that earlier humans spent regular long periods of time at a high VO2max output other than in periodic games.

The intense and voluminous training regimens used by elite athletes today and over the past few decades – in an effort to perform ever higher, faster, and farther – have resulted in the accumulation of stresses far greater than the human body was designed to withstand. As a result, the adrenals – the body’s primary stress organs – pump out cortisol and other corticosteroids at a very high rate in an effort to “survive” what the HPA axis perceives as life-threatening events, even though we might think they are healthy stresses. We know that while some cortisol is necessary for life, chronic excess cortisol causes muscle wasting, increases deposition of fat, decreases the uptake of calcium by bone, dramatically suppresses the immune system, shuts down digestion and reproduction and has a deleterious effect on other neuroendocrine functions in general. All of these cortisol effects are exactly what a healthy person tries desperately to avoid, and yet an athlete often lives in a veritable cortisol bath – until the adrenals finally fatigue and a whole host of new problems arise. Moreover, revving up the metabolic rate by a factor of 10-20 times normal for hours at a time results in oxidative fallout (free-radical output) sometimes 100 or more times the normal output and gets to the point where an athlete’s feeble antioxidant systems are simply overwhelmed. Oxidative-based inflammatory processes start occurring not just in joint and muscle tissue, but in the circulatory system and in and around nerve cells. (NB: most models of heart disease now look at inflammation as a critical component). And we could have yet another whole side discussion on the typical athlete diet too high in simple carbohydrates and its effects on insulin, advanced glycated end-products and epinephrine/norepinephine.

I think we are starting to see the first signs of damage in a generation of athletes who trained too hard for too long without proper maintenance (to go back to my helicopter analogy). And it’s not just among the elites anymore, but also among the millions who tried to emulate their heroes’ training regimens – all because they thought more was better or more was healthier. I made a point in a prior article that I thought it was ironic that the Federations and Leagues that established the high level of performance and outrageous pay scales in the first place are the same ones now suggesting that athletes should not use performance-enhancing substances. After researching the physical destruction that elite training can produce at many different levels (see all above), I am left believing we should give elite athletes (and those who train like them) every possible means of avoiding injury, illness or future life-threatening conditions. If that means that we have sports medicine doctors administering high-potency multi-vitamins, antioxidant cocktails, the occasional shot of testosterone, EPO or local cortisone injections, so be it. If an athlete has a cold and needs Sudafed to sleep the night before a big race, s/he should be allowed to do so. I’m not suggesting that drugs are the only answer – good diet, better attention to rest and periodicity in training, biofeedback and other forms of “maintenance” can help. But if athletes were simply given access to the same tools that OSHA and the EDD demand we give any worker who was stressed out, exhausted or injured on the job, in the end we could eliminate the current untenable hypocrisy and at the same time allow for a healthier generation of athletes to wow us with their latest feats.

As for the recreational athlete who is not competing at any level, my advice is to limit your hard training to less than an hour a day, with complete days off. Vary your exercise and other forms of play as much as possible. My own epiphany came at 40 when I decided I would train to “look fit” rather than “be fit.” Of course, the irony is that I look fitter now than when I was one of the fittest guys on the planet – because I am the healthiest I have ever been. And in the end, health and your total enjoyment of life are all that matter.

I welcome your feedback.

Originally posted at Art De Vany’s excellent Evolutionary Fitness (and other topics) blog.

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